11/22/2011 11:46 am ET | Updated Jan 22, 2012

One Smoker's Battle to Quit

Joe Donlan has been many things in his life -- an athlete, a businessman, a husband and father, a Marine, a good friend and... a lifetime smoker.

"I smoked for 40 years," Joe told me. "Back in my day, everybody smoked. We didn't have all the health information that's available today. We smoked; we drank; we ate fatty foods. Who knew?"

"So when did you quit, and why?" I asked.

"Well, let me backtrack a little," Joe responded. "I had been divorced for a number of years and was working as an investment advisor. In 1990, I went to a cocktail party one night and met a wonderful woman named Joan Hill. She had been a smoker on and off her whole life, too. So we started dating, fell in love and began a very happy relationship -- which we still have today.

"Joan was the director of public relations at the USC Marshall School of Business. In the early '90s, USC announced that it was going smoke-free. No smoking would be allowed on campus. Joan thought about it for awhile and decided it was time to quit. She has quit at other times in her life, like in 1962, when she knew the surgeon general's report about smoking was about to come out. She gave up smoking for eight years because she had two preteen children and she didn't want them to think she was stupid. But this time she decided to quit for good. When she told me of her decision, she said, 'I'm going to quit smoking. You are welcome to continue smoking, if you like, but just not in my condo.' I understood completely and I appreciated the respectful way she handled it.

"Shortly thereafter, a business colleague of mine had his 60th birthday party at the office. Afterward the party, I went with a former Marine buddy of mine to have a couple drinks at a bar on the way home. I stopped at a corner store to pick up a pack of cigs. This was a Friday night. When I got home, Joan and I spent the evening together, talking and relaxing.

"When I woke up the next morning, I went downstairs and found what was left of the pack of cigs -- there were only two left. It suddenly hit me. Between 4 p.m. on Friday night and 8 a.m. Saturday morning, I had smoked almost an entire pack! I thought to myself, 'Joan is going to quit smoking soon, so this is a good time for me to quit, too.' I threw the pack and those last two cigarettes in the trash and I haven't smoked since. I just quit cold turkey. That was May 6, 1993."

"Wow, that's amazing! Was it hard?" I asked.

"Oh yes," Joe replied. "The first three weeks, I was climbing the walls."

"Some time ago I read an article about a research project someone did, rating addictive substances," I said. "They asked a group of doctors to rate addictive substances on a scale of one to 100. [1] You know what substance they rated the highest? Nicotine. These doctors ranked nicotine at 99. Heroin and crack cocaine were ranked 98 and 97 on this scale of addictiveness. I was shocked. I had no idea. I've never been a smoker myself, so I didn't know how powerful that stuff is. After that, I had new compassion for smokers. It must be so hard to withdraw from nicotine -- not just the drug itself, but the habit -- the lighting up, the ritual of smoking after meals, at cocktail parties. I can understand why it's so hard for smokers to quit."

"You're absolutely right," Joe responded. "It's a very tough habit to kick. That's why I never let myself have even one cigarette. Because I know that if I did, I'd be right back at the corner store buying a whole pack. The only solution for me is to never touch the stuff again."

"I have terrific respect and admiration for both you and Joan for quitting -- and without nicotine gum or patches or anything," I said. "What advice would you give others who want to kick a bad habit, especially a health habit?"

"You have to take control of your life," Joe replied. "You have to really want to change, and then make the effort to change. You have to be positive... You have to make a decision. If you're not ready to change, that's OK. Just be honest with yourself. You can't give up something until you're really ready. It's your body and you can do what you choose. But in order to change something -- whether it's smoking, drinking, exercise, eating, whatever -- you have to WANT to!"

"I guess it's like that old joke, 'How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb really has to want to change.'" I said.

Joe and I both laughed.

"I'd add one more thing," he said. "I'm a heredity person. If either one of your parents died of lung cancer, you're a fool to smoke. My parents smoked and neither of them got lung cancer. So I figured I had my genes going for me.

"It's the same with any health problem. Look at your parents' health history, and your grandparents, too. If any of them died of heart disease, you ought to eat a low-fat diet. If any of them were alcoholics, you'd be smart to stay away from booze. And if any of them got lung cancer, you're a fool to smoke. Like I said, I'm a heredity guy."

"Thanks, Joe," I said. "I'm glad you and Joan quit smoking because you're both close to 80 now and can still have many good HEALTHY years to live. Thanks for sharing your story with me."


1. Hastings, J. (In Health, 1990, Nov/Dec)